Inside Demmin: the town that could not go on living

The Peene river in Demmin (Wikimedia)

Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself
By Florian Huber
Allen Lane, 304pp, £20/$24

This is an inauspicious title for a thought-provoking book. Its subtitle, The Downfall of Ordinary Germans in 1945, provides the clue to its meaning. Huber, who was born in Nuremberg in 1967, says he was inspired to write it after reading Ian Kershaw’s history of the death throes of the Third Reich, The End.

For readers today the book provides a salutary reminder that disobeying the divine injunction “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” brings its own retribution. Behind Huber’s examination of the mass suicide epidemic in Demmin, a small provincial town two hours north of Berlin, lies his psychological analysis of the despair many Germans throughout the country felt at the end of the War – especially in the east, about to be invaded by the Russians.

For 12 years they had worshipped, almost literally, at the shrine of a grotesquely false god; with Germany’s defeat and Hitler’s suicide on April 30, 1945, what was left? Many could not bear the shame, the admission of their own silent complicity, their “lost honour” – racial, military, familial and sexual. (This last refers to the systematic rape of German women by the advancing Soviet troops.)

As the author relates, between April 30 and May 3, 1945, “Demmin became the scene of an unprecedented wave of suicides”, not just of men or of individuals but of whole families: mothers and their young children, grandparents and adolescents. They had survived years of material deprivation, bombing and deaths of their sons and husbands in battle. But now, as a Danish journalist, Jacob Kronika, observed as he witnessed the last days of Berlin, “The terrible tragedy of the German people [is that] they can’t muster the strength or see their way to freeing themselves from the rule of evil.”

As Huber himself comments, “Untold numbers of Germans turned on themselves the violence that had become part of their everyday life.” Currently a bestseller in Germany, Huber’s sober narrative reminds us that the temptation to follow false messiahs is a constant feature of human history.